Saturday, June 12, 2010

Post # 49: The City by the Bay

Photos from my 24 hour layover in San Francisco

No green machines like this one cruising the financial district of Kampala, Uganda
On the right is a catholic church. On the left is the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Fitting.
Window cleaners looking like they're gonna log a few overtime hours
The farmers are in possession of the San Francisco municipal water supply!
Now this is the San Francisco I was expecting
Hilly city
On Nov. 20, 1969 a group of Native Americans stormed and held the island for nineteen months
The federal government eventually got its land back, but publicity from the event pushed it to meet a number of demands made by the occupiers and Native American lobbyists for years to come. 

Golden Gate Bridge

Three historic, beautiful, shiny cable cars sitting in front of a f---ing parking structure
Fisherman's Wharf
Great looking house on Lombard Street (the world's crookedest street)
This one looks like it is being squished by its neighbors
Great name for a playground
I stumbled across an old-world Yiddish wedding, emceed by this guy

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Post # 48d:The lost, unfinished posts

The poverty is real.

As you probably know, back in 2006 I studied for a semester at the American University in Cairo. One of the perks of attending this particular institution  was its location. I was living and studying within the heart of one of the world’s oldest and largest cities. Eighteen million strong and growing at an astounding rate, Cairenes absorb any job vacancy faster than you can eat a falafel sandwich. Despite the joblessness, immigrants, mostly from Sudan and the Horn countries, continue to move into the city in great numbers. With the morning call from the muezzin’s tower, a dirty, uneducated,  primarily male, and extremely poor mass descends upon  downtown Cairo, where they will stay until sundown. Some hawk cheap plastic toys for kids, others wash the sidewalk in front of stores for a couple Egyptian pounds, some sit on main thoroughfares with their hand out, but mostly stand around doing absolutely nothing except smoking the occasional Cleopatra cigarette that has mysteriously appeared from I have no idea where.

Some of you might have asked  yourself at some time or another when reading my blog, “Just how poor are Africans?”

The answer, very poor.

Top Ten Travel Books

1. Kingdom by the Sea -- Paul Theroux
2. Innocents Abroad -- Mark Twain
3. Catch 22 -- Joseph Heller
4. The Beach -- Alex Garland
5. Motoring With Muhammad -- Eric Hansen
6. Heart of Darkness -- Joseph Conrad
7. In a Sunburned Country -- Bill Bryson
8. Travels Through Egypt -- Gustav Flaubert
9. The Big Red Train Ride -- Eric Newby
10. A Year in Provence -- Peter Mayle
(11. Dark Star Safari -- Paul Theroux)
(12. Neither Here Nor There -- Bill Bryson)

Post # 48c: The lost, unfinished posts

A few years back I coined my sister’s nickname “princess,” to widespread approval. Why did I arrive at that particular term, you ask? Perhaps my decision was based on her ability to turn on the sympathy waterworks whenever a traffic policeman approaches her, or her sensitivity to small, round objects sandwiched underneath numerous mattresses. Whatever the reason, “princess” was justified. However, I am happy to say, my sister is no longer deserving of that title, especially after what I have just put her through while she was out visiting me: African public transportation.

You may recall my post on African buses which I put on The White Nile after a business trip to Lira. I know realize that trip was about average.

The African is not a complainer. He is never defeated. While disease and climate beat back wave after wave of European colonialism, the African man continued to live like he had for the last ten thousand years. If something doesn’t work out as planned, he simply tries again the next day. He has a patience and a tolerance of unforeseen problems that we can’t even begin to come close to out in the West. It is therefore just as impressive as Germany’s railway system that leaves and arrives exactly as scheduled, a public transportation system that still manages to persist despite frequent problems, constant underperformance, and far too many casualties and fatalities.

Post # 48b: The lost, unfinished posts

Mbale, 1965. The “Cleanest Town in East Africa” was a model city, and no longer reliant on the ivory trade from Karamoja to rationalize its existence. Immaculate streets laid out in a perfect grid focused everything on the central clock tower: a giant pink structure that resembles a Napoleonic souvenir fallen prey to a deco mind with a sense of humor. The people are cheerful. And they should be. Uganda had just been granted its independence from Britain, and the city was vying with Entebbe to hold the title of the newly formed country’s capital. Thanks to a good road leading to Jinja to the southwest, Mbale was directly connected to Uganda’s booming industry, outpacing other area townships to become the eastern region’s commercial hub.

The buildings are wonderful, a constant reminder of one of my favorite things about Africa, that colonial powers came, built hastily, then vanished. Instead of being undone, their work has just been Africanized. Old colonial fa├žades hanging over every street, no longer imposing Khan and Sons, 1948, but instead Omoding Enterprises. Most of them still bare the year in which they were constructed, usually dates when WWII was just ending and colonialism in Africa, thanks to our good friend Woodrow Wilson and the nearsighted members of Britain’s Labour movement, was on its way out.

When I look past their rusted shutters and through their broken windows, I can sometimes see a fat old white man with a whiskey in hand and a lion’s skin on the wall behind him, gazing out over the African’s first foray into urbanization.

Reality hits hard.

The Mbale of today is a different place, and there is little to brag about. Though there is no chaos in the streets, abundant pot holes ensure every motorist inches along, zig-zagging like a snail avoiding piles of salt. Trash lines the street, and locals shamelessly toss their rubbish in the gutter. One building on Republic Street, the main thoroughfare, was caught in a terrible fire six months ago and has yet to be gutted and cleaned; one can still see the charred debris through the empty windows.

Post # 48a: The lost, unfinished posts

Mbale Hill, Part II

A number of small villages line the only road that spans the top of the mesa. Most of them, consisting of no more than four or five little shops and some scattered homes, were just waking up when we strolled through. The men, already on African time while the women cooked and did their family’s laundry, were perhaps devising possible excuses they would tell their coworkers as reason for his delay that morning; standing around in shady spots talking. Children too young or from families too poor to send them to school were also out, playing together along the roadside, stopping mid-wrestle to stare at the passing white men with sweat pouring off of their faces. Once the shock of seeing us wore off, they would of course yell  “bazungu” and, to our surprise, jambo, a Swahili greeting. Pre-Widowmaker we had  been very enthusiastic with our responses to their calls. Slowly, as this hard stretch of road kept disappearing around bends in front of us, our replies to the children became more and more disappointing. No more waving back or trying to make goofy noises, just a grumbled “jambo” in between the swearing under our breaths. Breakfast had been an afterthought that morning, summiting and post hike beers being the real priorities, but you know that you are really hungry when you dream of eating local Ugandan food.

The Widowmaker persisted. For over an hour and a half we slogged through the equatorial sun at the top of Nkokonjeru with just under a liter of water and a half a PB&J sandwich between the three of us. We passed by a gorgeous waterfall, right by the roadside, but I was too tired to stop and do the whole picture routine. Punishment was lifted briefly, however, when a homeless guy decided to exchange his usual diversion, probably huffing glue and annoying locals, for harassing us for money. So we walked faster, but he kept up right alongside us. When he realized we weren’t in the mood to talk to our grandmothers nonetheless him, he began naming off types of food. At first this only agitated me, but, perhaps seeing the humor in the situation, I began to rattle off food with him. He absolutely loved this. Eventually “maize” was dropped and we all started laughing, our lethargic chuckles with his hoarse bellow, so we decided to name him Mr. Maize. Mr. Maize peeled off when we ran out of types of food to say or he spotted another collection of potential harassees, I can’t really recall which, but we should have thanked him before he parted; his initial panhandling proved to be a plus because it pushed us to walk faster than our tired legs had been willing to take us before we met him, and our destination was near.

Not the ration I had envisioned: three hours hiking up and twenty minutes of relaxing at the summit. Yes, the views were spectacular. Foreboding cumulus clouds dominated the skies to the north but halted right above us to be replaced by some more gentle stratus clouds. Below us lay Mbale and environs; the town proper was quite small, but civilization spread out like spilt water on a tile floor, very low and decreasing in density with each passing kilometer, until Mbale was reduced to long tentacles of houses and shops lining the major highways leading to other parts of Uganda. Metal roofs,  usually unattractive from ground level, caught the midday sun and shone like jewels from a sea of green foliage. Behind us lay the Kenyan border and barely visible Tororo Rock, swathed in haze. A breeze moved past us, cooing us off despite the heat and carrying away the annoying buzz produced by the radio tower. Alas, it is the bane of the young adult male’s existence that yearnings of the stomach should take precedence over pleasant views, so, after snapping a few final photos, we headed back in the direction of civilization and nourishment.

During our descent we passed through a small town that had been rather sleepy during our first trip through, but now was alive with commerce and freshly released from school children. Ignoring their parents’ demands to get started on their homework, the kids began following us. Soon we had a gaggle of screaming and laughing African children following us down the mountain side, absorbing more excited kids with every house we walked by.